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Candidates trade low-tech jabs in a high-tech world


© St. Petersburg Times, published January 16, 2000

Sometimes there can be too much of a good thing.


Late-night college basketball on cable.

High-tech communication from political campaigns.

The good thing about fancy telephone systems, e-mail and the Internet is that political reporters can follow every twitch in the presidential campaigns without leaving the office.

The bad thing: political reporters can follow every twitch in presidential campaigns without leaving the office.

One morning last week, Republican John McCain released his tax-cut plan in a speech in Concord, N.H. By 12:45 p.m., the McCain campaign e-mailed the details of the proposal.

George W. Bush, who has been talking about a larger tax cut for weeks, wasn't about to let McCain's proposal go unanswered.

Shortly after McCain's announcement showed up, Bush's campaign e-mailed a response.

Three times.

"I apologize," the e-mail said at the top, "but this will be the last time I will send it."

That was the most welcome pledge of the day.

The Bush campaign also scheduled a 1:30 p.m. conference call with a campaign spokesman and the governor's chief economic adviser. Reporters dialed a toll-free number and entered a secret code. The idea behind conference calls is that reporters from newspapers all over the country can get a live quote and maybe ask a question or two.

At 1:28 p.m., soft classical music played through the phone line.

By 1:33 p.m., the Bush campaign came on the line from Texas. The dialogue went something like this.

BUSH SPOKESMAN ARI FLEISCHER: Governor Bush welcomes a focus on tax cuts and taxes in this campaign. As tax cutting goes, his view is simple -- the more money sent to Washington, the more the politicians will have to spend.

BUSH ECONOMIC ADVISER LARRY LINDSEY: McCain's tax cuts do not help the people who need them most. He extends the 15 percent tax bracket from the current $43,050 for married couples to $70,000. But 71 percent of taxpayers are in the 15 percent tax bracket now and would receive no tax cut. We are open for questions.

TELEPHONE OPERATOR TO REPORTERS: Punch one if you want to ask a question.

Silence for several seconds.

BUSH CAMPAIGN: Does anybody have a question?


BUSH CAMPAIGN (sounding incredulous): How many reporters are on the line.


BUSH CAMPAIGN: There have got to be questions.

The operator opens the lines so everyone can hear everyone. Some reporters are on cellular phones. There is static. NBC's David Bloom tries to ask a question that gets lost in the chatter.

The operator closes the lines again. She tells reporters to punch one if they want to ask a question.


BUSH CAMPAIGN: Why won't this work?

OPERATOR: I don't know.

She opens up the lines again. Someone tries to ask a complicated question that has to do with the alternative minimum tax aimed at wealthy taxpayers. Other voices drown out the rest of the question.

Time to hang up.

By nightfall, McCain e-mails a more detailed copy of his tax plan and his speech from New Hampshire.

In the meantime, another e-mail fight has broken out between Democrats Al Gore and Bill Bradley.

It turns out Bradley was in Des Moines, chatting with fourth-graders and their parents about the dangers of using tobacco. He wants to earmark $1-billion in new money to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, double the budget for community health centers around the country and create a new public health institute.

That sounded innocent enough.

But the Bradley campaign followed that up with another e-mail blasting Gore's commitment to fighting tobacco. Among other things, it dusted off a letter Gore wrote to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in 1988 and a comment Gore made in a 1988 debate in Iowa.

The reaction was predictable.

The vice president's campaign quickly responded with its own e-mail and a four-page, single-spaced attachment. The headline: "The facts on Bradley's latest attack: Al Gore has been a fighter on tobacco issues."

So there.

This is the high-tech, or low-tech, side of presidential campaigns that few voters see firsthand.

You're not missing much.

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